Sexism, liberation and the left

December 12, 2013

IN RESPONSE to Ben Smith's letter ("This debate doesn't add much"), which argued that recent debates around women's liberation, women's participation in revolutionary organization and the language used to categorize it was "sub-political," we would like to present an alternative argument.

Let us briefly summarize what we believe to be Ben's argument: First, he argues that there is a distinction between "personal" and "political" expressions of oppressive behavior; second, that discussions of "brocialism" don't develop any theoretical or practical tools; third, that the time of the organization would be better spent on "systemic analysis" of the changes in women's oppression, since debates over "brocialism" are "distractive" and undermine solidarity between men and women comrades; finally, that the source of this debate is an intellectual stasis and breakdown of democracy within the organization.

We disagree with each of these assertions.

Are "personal" and "political" discrete categories?

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Smith argues that "when male comrades reveal sexist tendencies in their personal life, I think it's important to address such actions on a personal level--at least initially--well before they become manifest on a political level." But drawing such a sharp distinction between our personal and political lives misunderstands our relationship as people to our political project. Indeed, such an understanding has troubling implications for how change happens.

Assuming discrete categories of personal and political behavior, particularly with regards to oppressive behavior, how does one engage in sexist behavior in one's personal life without engaging in it in political life? A comrade who engages in sexist behavior--consistently talking over women, telling sexist jokes, objectifying women--outside of their "political" life while claiming to be committed to women's liberation is either unaware of the behavior (in which case pointing it out should result in an immediate change) or does not see these behaviors as a problem (a harder argument to win).

In either case, the idea that men have an anti-sexist switch that they flip between their personal and political lives is ludicrous. Disrespect for women in one's personal life is bound to manifest in political life.

Certainly, all of us retain sexist ideas. These are the dominant ideas of capitalist society, and they permeate every aspect of our lives. But to say that women need to put aside the demand for an end to sexism until we have overthrown capitalism is crude class reductionism, as if challenging sexism at every turn wasn't crucial for making our organization a tribune of the oppressed, crucial to preparing our class to fight against the ruling class with any chance of winning.

If it was true that only the overthrow of capitalism could stop men from talking over women in meetings, even making a revolution committed to women's liberation would be a tall order indeed.

As socialists, however, we have already begun to challenge the dominant ideas of our society--both in thought and action. As socialists committed to women's liberation, we have started to challenge our society's sexist ideas as well. Collectively, we have identified behaviors that help enforce women's second-class status, and we have guidelines for comradely discussion and behavior that help to ensure the full participation of women in revolutionary organization.

This is not a question of policing comrades' personal lives: if the organizational practice of respecting women comrades cannot convince male comrades that similar behavior is necessary in their personal life, this represents a political problem in trying to build an organization fully committed to women's liberation.

Women's liberation and organizational practice

Whatever we think of the word "brocialism," the debate that unfolded around it was hardly semantic. At stake were central issues about how we confront the continued presence of sexism on the left--among people we want to organize with and who we think are worth arguing with to win away from their sexist ideas.

While the word brocialism was never meant by its creator to hold up to a series of debates about socialism and women's liberation, the word became such an intense subject of debate because many female and LGBTQ comrades found it to be a useful term for describing the specific kind of marginalization they experience within socialist circles.

Far from being "distractive," this debate gained traction because degradation, objectification, harassment and even violence persist among people who espouse the complete opposite.

Nor is this only a problem for the International Socialist Organization. In fact, we would argue the seriousness with which the question of sexism on the left has been handled was only possible because our organizational understanding of fighting oppression does not subordinate such a fight to class struggle, and because alongside a series of "letters," continues an organization-wide project of deepening our theoretical understanding of women's oppression and what it will take to win liberation.

At our Socialism conference the past two years, at regional conferences, Historical Materialism, at Chicago's Marxist-Feminist potluck and beyond, we have been grappling with questions about the persistence of sexual violence and its character under neoliberalism, the theoretical contributions of the Marxist-Feminists who preceded us, and intersectionality.

Other discussions have taken place at the Socialism Conference and beyond about gender inequality after the crisis of 2008, the mistreatment of pregnant women by the prison system and detention facilities, and the meaning of movements like Slutwalk. Comrades around the country have been central in organizing demonstrations in solidarity with Jane Doe in Steubenville, with Texas women under threat of losing all meaningful access to abortion.

Far from being "distracted" by a debate over sexism on the left, the very people who have been engaging in it are the same people involved in working to lay the groundwork for a much-needed women's movement. Far from democratic or theoretical stasis, our organization's engagement with the question of women's liberation, and with others on the left grappling with the same debates, has possibly never been more vibrant or dynamic.

Such a commitment does not emerge from nowhere. Rather, it is the fruit borne of many years of commitment by our organization to developing women as leaders and taking women's issues seriously. This is a theoretical question, yes. It is also a practical question of how meetings are run, how debate happens, and if women's voices are central to decision making and discussion.

This is a question of practice rooted in emancipatory politics. Rather than "undermining solidarity" between men and women comrades or stagnating democracy, the daily practice of anti-sexism within our organization enhances it.
Trish Kahle, Chicago, and Destiney Linker, Amherst, Mass.

Further Reading

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